Congratulations, Worm

Rodman takes a piece of the Bad Boys with him to Hall of Fame

News that Dennis Rodman had won over Hall of Fame voters leaked a few days before the April 4 official announcement. The Pistons played in Boston the night of April 3. A few hours before tipoff, I was in the press room at the new Boston Garden. Through an open doorway, less than 15 feet away in the dining room, two prominent ex-Celtics, one a Hall of Famer, were savaging Rodman’s inclusion.

The Hall of Famer was particularly incensed, recalling a game from long ago he watched where the Lakers employed some particular tactic against Rodman, he said, that revealed his shortcomings and rendered him virtually impotent.

I’ll protect their identity on the basis of their expectation of privacy, though I couldn’t have avoided overhearing without leaving the room, and I’m not sure how much privacy should be expected for anything said within the confines of the media dining room.

I’ll say this much: The Hall of Famer was not Bill Russell. Russell, I suspect, would wholeheartedly endorse Rodman’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Any short list of NBA players through history who have most affected games without needing the basketball in their hands would be laughably off-base without Dennis Rodman and Bill Russell.

Indeed, if Russell is the gold standard for defensive big men, Rodman is the counterpart among perimeter defenders.

And if Russell stands alone as the most dominant defender of all-time, as history has anointed him, then Rodman surely is the most versatile elite defender that ever breathed. While it is undeniable that no player who ever breathed has been better equipped to guard any position on the floor, point guard to center, than Rodman, it is also insufficient to leave it at that. Hardly anybody, after all, has ever been equipped to even attempt such a thing.

But Rodman had the lateral foot speed to stay with pretty much any guard in the league, the length to harass the most prolific wing scorers in an era overloaded with him, and the sinewy strength to muscle up against the craftiest post scorers of the day. He used all of them to help the Pistons win two NBA titles and the Bulls win three, and it’s fair to wonder if any of those five titles would have been won had Rodman not been suiting up with those teams and lending to them his wondrous defensive ability.

He made his reputation guarding the likes of Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan and Clyde Drexler. But you could have put Rodman on Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley or John Stockton and expected that their production would be diminished because of him.

Sort of stunning that criticism of Rodman would come from ex-Celtics, sort of not.

It would be hard to cite any individual Bad Boy who meant more to the toppling of the Celtics dynasty – and it was the Bad Boys who drove the stake through the heart of the Bird-Parish-McHale Celtics – than Rodman. That’s not to suggest Rodman meant more to those teams than Isiah Thomas or Joe Dumars or Bill Laimbeer. He didn’t. But in those two seasons while the Pistons pulled even with and then ahead of the Celtics, nobody changed the dynamic of the rivalry more than Rodman did.

And those two Celtics greats who disparaged him that night had to know as much, if they had been paying any attention. The elements Rodman brought to the table – the defense, the rebounding, the pure game-changing athleticism that perhaps no one else has ever brought in such heavy doses – completed the Pistons.

But among Celtics and Celtics fans of that generation, hatred for the Bad Boys runs pretty deep. In their minds, the Celtics and Lakers would still be playing for every NBA title if only the NBA hadn’t let the Pistons flex their muscles so. So, yeah, not so surprising that it pains them to give Dennis Rodman his due.

Only if you deny the very qualities the Celtics so prided themselves on – teamwork, hustle, defense, individual sacrifice – could you question Rodman’s Hall of Fame inclusion. Rodman was never an accomplished scorer – and that was his only flaw. How many great scorers who did almost nothing else to contribute to winning basketball have made the Hall of Fame?

Rodman and Arvydas Sabonis become the first players from the star-crossed 1986 NBA draft class to make the Hall of Fame, and Sabonis – though he could have been an all-time great big man if his body hadn’t betrayed him – goes in more for his Olympic and international contributions than for his NBA career.

Did Jack McCloskey foresee that kind of greatness in Rodman when he made him the 27th pick? I think he might have. McCloskey talked after the fact how he went into that draft coveting Rodman and considered taking him with his first-round pick at No. 11. But after Rodman’s lethargic showing at the Chicago predraft camp – when the Pistons, McCloskey believed, were the only team that learned how severely Rodman was suffering with asthma, thanks to McCloskey’s decision to send trainer Mike Abdenour to Chicago to learn such things – McCloskey gambled that he could afford to take the much better known John Salley 11th and wait on Rodman.

At his first training camp, I had a fascinating conversation with Rodman’s first NBA agent, Bill Pollak, who told me he thought McCloskey viewed Rodman as the player who would become his grand discovery.

I think they were both right. For all the deft moves McCloskey made in building the Bad Boys, nothing represented greater value than drafting a Hall of Famer in a mine-field draft with the 27th pick.

A little piece of Jack McCloskey goes in the Hall of Fame tonight when Dennis Rodman – wearing God knows what – makes one of the most highly anticipated acceptance speeches in basketball history. A little piece of Chuck Daly, too, who surely would be Rodman’s presenter were he still alive. And a big piece of the Bad Boys goes in with him, as well. Congratulations, Worm. We’ll be watching.